Hope and redemption are two things everyone could use more of in the challenging times we’re living in, and that’s exactly what Jake Heggie’s moving opera Dead Man Walking delivers. While Jake — a dear friend of mine — composed this brilliant work more than 20 years ago, it just made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I was very proud to be in the audience along with Sister Helen Prejean, whose courageous 1993 memoir about ministering to a convicted murderer on death row inspired the show. Prejean’s book was also the inspiration behind the 1995 film of the same name starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.
Joyce DiDonato shined as Sister Helen. The real Sister Helen was in the audience and it was truly a treat. Ryan McKinny portrayed the death row inmate and Susan Graham was his mother. They were all simply sensational. As I predicted, the show is receiving rave reviews, and a bevy of celebrities attended opening night, including Anne Hathaway, Whoopi Goldberg, John Hamm, Angela Bassett was with her husband, Courtney B. Vance, Ben Stiller, Adrien Brody, and many more. Vogue stated, “It was a brilliant premiere, and, offstage, a star-studded start to the 2023–24 season.”
As a longtime friend and fan of Jake Heggie’s work, I know the spectacular level of art and expert musicianship he brings to the table. I have had the distinct honor of watching Jake compose some of his pieces, and he continues to impress me with his ability to touch hearts one note at a time. I am so proud of him and thrilled I was privileged to be present at this milestone event in his spectacular career.
Dead Man Walking is the most performed opera of the 21st century. While it debuted in 2000 in San Francisco, its arrival at the Met is a pivotal moment for Jake’s career and opera as an ever-evolving art form. While opera has ancient roots, its future is bright, with contemporary themes that continue to address the human condition.
Dead Man Walking reminded me of the time I met death row inmate Dominique Green in Texas before he was executed. I was a partner at Susman Godfrey and had a very successful career in law when I visited with Dominique, talking to him via a phone connected to the small cage in which he was held.
Green was arrested in 1992 when he was 18 and convicted of fatally shooting Andrew Lastrapes Jr. during a robbery outside a Houston convenience store. While he admitted to participating in the robbery, he insisted he did not commit the murder. Dominique was a Black teen convicted of capital murder by a Harris County, Texas, jury without a single Black member on it.
Green died by lethal injection in 2004. I prayed for him and feel he was unfairly executed. His final words were, “I am not angry, but I am disappointed that I was denied justice. But I am happy that I was afforded you all as family and friends. You all have been there for me; it’s a miracle. I love you … I am not as strong as I thought I was going to be. But I guess it only hurts for a little while. You all are my family. Please keep my memory alive.”
He was a man who became filled with grace, in large part because of people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu visited Dominique Green on death row and deemed him a “good advertisement for God.” The archbishop opposed the death penalty and was so enriched by his encounter with Green that he said it humbled him. If only there were more Archbishop Tutus and Sister Helen Prejeans in the world.
Prejean continues to be such an inspiration and advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty. She’s devoted an entire website, sisterhelen.org, to the moral dilemma of capital punishment. On this site, she shares information on the books she has written and reflections on life and death and her organization, Ministry Against the Death Penalty.
I think, much like my encounter with Green, Dead Man Walking will offer audiences a glimpse into Sister Helen’s plight and how precious life is. Jake Heggie masterfully presents this compelling tale in a way only he could convey. I believe that art can inform and inspire. The moment I met Jake, I knew his words and melodies would change the world. I believe in him and the power of opera. I encourage everyone to experience Dead Man Walking. The show is already boosting the signal for bridging the gap between art and justice. A dinner to honor Sister Helen took place the night of the Met opening, and $3.2 million was raised for the opera company, according to Vogue.
Dead Man Walking is now playing at the Metropolitan Opera through Oct. 21.